Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Syntax Club: "I. Justice" & "II. Each"

Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

Sorry about the schedule shuffling on this week's posts (I'm in the midst of "high school final exams" season). Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.


--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?


Carson introduces us to our young, red, winged protagonist Geryon, who lives in what seems to be a kind of NotQuiteCanadaButStillCanada with his family. Geryon struggles from a young age for a number of reasons, most prominently being his own social weirdness, his inability to experience the world in the same way as others, and sexual abuse from his sibling. Geryon eventually begins work on his "autobiography", a frequent but mercurial object in the novel, which allows Carson to introduce "interior things" and "exterior things" as major, recurring categories.


Is this an essay?

No, this section (which is the opening of the bulk of the work: the "novel in verse") is pretty definitively not an essay.

What's valuable to an essayist here, then?

We can probably agree that the essay is fundamentally a think-y genre, or a think-y mode of activity; the manner in which Carson addresses some of the thematic concerns of these sections (namely, justice, interiority, and "each") are approached in a kind of think-y way. She may not be doing explicit essaying, but some of her moves lean towards aphorism, or some other kind of abstraction, let's call it, maybe, say, "intellectually expansive gesture"(see: "like honey is the sleep of the just"). These are similar to moves on which essayists frequently rely.

Is aphorism or "intellectually expansive gesture" inherently essayistic?

Maybe? I'm not saying these tools are unique to essayists (indeed, any fiction writer working outside of a certain Modern American Realist mode probably makes use of tools we would consider essayistic; tons of 19th Century authors use fictional narratives as occasion for long interludes of essaying all the time). The older I get the less interested I am in the theoretic boundaries of the category of "essay" and the more interested I am in seeing what the essay toolkit can do.


Geryon learned about justice from his brother quite early. (23)

Typical Carson: strong abstraction (justice) as an introduction to what would otherwise be a pretty localized, concrete scene. Quite early is an interesting choice for this opening sentence--it becomes extremely ominous once we hit the second section, but here before that information it seems wryly mysterious. I'm curious about these separate, opening lines Carson uses for each of the numbered segments--they often seem to lean into more essayistic modes.

So many different kinds of stones,
the sober and the uncanny, lying side by side in the red dirt.
To stop and imagine the life of each one!
Now they were sailing through the air from a happy human arm,
what a fate. (23)

I love so much the odd poles she picks for expressing the range of possible stones: sober and uncanny! The former is obvious and easy, the latter totally unexpected (at least for me). Carson's more editorial comments can affect a wide range of emotions, and they often manage to feel laconic, wry, and sincere all at once to me. We see some examples of that here: the seemingly guileless exclamation mark concluding the infinitive to stop and imagine; the way what a fate gets plainly appended on. I tend to find the effect of these amusing and charming, but I'm not sure if others feel the same. Also, notice her unusual choice of adjective again: a happy human arm--it's a category adjective similar to ones we saw last week, rather than a possessive human.

He had to make it to the door. He had to not lose track of his brother.
These two things. (24)

Skillful combination of anaphora (repetition at the start; he..he...) and fragmentation (these two things isn't a complete sentence). It lets us inhabit the mental stakes of the situation young Geryon finds himself in; the repeated imperatives of what he must do are followed by a shorter sentence which shows how this childlike fear or anxiety is dominating his mind.

of thunder tunnels and indoor neon sky slammed open by giants. (24)

Thunder tunnles! I love the odd, sideways, slanted (but often perfect) way Carson approaches so many of her adjective choices, and it's doubly impressive here because she makes it alliterative, too--using one of the most potentially heavy-handed devices to draw attention to her unusual choice. Very confident style at work.

The eyes terrible holes. (24)

Another example of fragmentation enabling us to embody or inhabit experience (though notice this time we aren't in Geryon's head per se--we're jumping to the way others might perceive him; I'm definitely interested, especially in this read-through, about how quickly Carson moves around different registers and spaces to inhabit in her narration).

But when justice is done
the world drops away. (24)

Definitely an essayistic (or aphoristic, or "expansive intellectual gesture") moment. I love it, though I'm actually not 100% sure how I want to parse through its precise meaning in this scene (and that combination--"great, but I dunno what it means maybe?"--is what we mean half the time we talk about "lyric essays," right?).

He did not gesticulate.
He did not knock on the glass. He waited. Small, red, and upright he waited,
gripping his new bookbag tight
in one and hand and touching a lucky penny inside his coat pocket with the other,
while the first snows of winter
floated down on his eyelashes and covered the branches around him and silenced
all trace of the world. (25)

Short, punchy anaphora once more leading us up to a final sentence which deliberately inverts modifier placement near the moment of repetition (small, red, and upright he waited) before spilling out into a lovely, highly imagistic sprawl. Notice in particular how she makes use of the plain conjunction and, absent much other connective tissue, to tack on phrase after phrase after phrase. Of course, part of the strength here is the variety (elongation of this sort feels less distinctive if it's more common or frequent in an author's style).

Like honey is the sleep of the just. (26)

Inverting typical syntactical order is a tool Carson has some fondness of; what might have otherwise been a trite simile ("the sleep of the just is like honey") takes on an appropriately mythic dimension here. Compare with, say, Whitman's "vigil strange I kept...".

He clothed himself in this strong word each. (26)

Another fantastic adjective choice: this strong word.

Before this time Geryon had not lived nights just days and their red intervals. (26)

Isn't intervals the same basic unit we got when we learned about Stesichoros' placement in the history of poetry?

He knew the difference between facts and brother hatred. (26)

Brother hatred belongs to the same (highly effective) category as boy neck from last week's analysis. Interesting to think about how frequently she makes this move (turning possession (i.e., the hatred of Geryon's particular brother) into a kind of bigger category (i.e., the type of hatred unique to brothers)), especially given that this book is supposed to be about A D J E C T I V E S.

And so they developed an economy of sex
for cat's-eyes.
Pulling the stick makes my brother happy, thought Geryon. (28)

Carson moves between a very elevated, abstracted register (economy of sex) in her narration to a a much more simple, childlike one (pulling the stick) when diving directly into Geryon's thoughts. Sharp shifts in tone and register are common tools for many authors, and this example masterfully emphasizes both the innocence of Geryon and the horror of the situation. But notice how her refusal to use traditional quotation marks to indicate direct reports of internal thoughts heightens the contrast--and how does it play in to the ongoing stuff with "external" and "internal" at work here?

That was also the day
he began his autobiography. In this work Geryon set down all inside things
particularly his own heroism
and early death much to the despair of the community. He coolly omitted
all outside things (29).

Once again wry, laconic, and sincere all at once. There's a kind of mystical quality to Geryon's relationship to external and internal as categories (and this gets more complex once he grows up and Carson starts throwing, like Heidegger references and stuff at us). Something worth tracking as we read, maybe.


And Elongation
Compose a sentence significantly longer than your typical sentences using only (or at least primarily) the conjunction and to draw out the length. Minimize explanation, transition, and dependency as much as you can; try to just set the elements of the long sentence side by side via the conjunction (see: the ending of page 25, that last gorgeous sprawling sentence). We might talk more about this stuff in the form of parataxis v. hypotaxis later on in the novel, as Carson relies on these devices a good deal.

Register Shift
Identify two very different registers or tones and move swiftly between them in the context of a paragraph or short passage (see: economy of sex and pulling the stick).

Alliterative Descriptors

See if you can generate descriptors or modifiers for nouns which are both unexpected and alliterative (see: thunder tunnel).


Tomorrow we will be covering "III: Rhinestones", "IV: Tuesday", "V: Screendoor", and "VI: Ideas". 


Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery

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